In Gaza, No End in Sight
Questions for Avishai Ehrlich
The Israeli political sociologist talks about Israel's "unilateral ceasefire" in Gaza, how the conflict there typifies modern warfare, and how skewed he finds American media coverage.
At the time of writing, the conflict in Gaza seems to be heading toward settlement. No, there is no settlement; this is a misconception. Tzipi Livni and Condoleezza Rice have signed mutual agreements to curb Hamas, which does not mean that the problem has been resolved. Israel is not fighting the United States; it has to sign agreements with the party it is fighting against—and that is Hamas. All that has happened is that Israel has declared a unilateral ceasefire. It knows that the U.S. public is busy this week celebrating President Obama's inauguration and that it doesn't want to be disturbed.
So “settlement” is a misnomer? I wish people would think twice before using the word “settlement” as it conveys an underlying assumption about the roots of the problem. If we frame the problem narrowly as Palestinians firing rockets, then the solution is stopping the rockets. But if the root cause of resistance is occupation, then settlement has to do with ending the occupation. As nothing has been agreed between Israel and Hamas, the likelihood is that fighting, in one form or another, will resume soon.
What strategy was Israel pursuing in launching this offensive? Israel is not willing to pay the internal and international price of a re-conquest of Gaza, so it was resorting to the strategy it employed in Lebanon in 2006, namely punishment: exacting maximum, disproportionate destruction and casualties from Gazans in order to “burn into their consciousness” the invincibility of Israel —a rather strange term for Jews to have used after the holocaust.
In media coverage of the violence, the Israelis claim that as a sovereign nation, Israel has the right to defend itself from Hamas. Yet the casualties were mostly civilian Palestinians. Surely, the Israelis anticipated this? The Israeli leadership knows how densely-populated the Gaza Strip is, just as they know that Hamas is embedded in the population. Israel knew but remained undaunted by the horrible results of its planned actions. Israel forbade journalists to enter Gaza precisely to limit the reporting of such scenes, which it knew would dominate the screens and tarnish its image.
But Hamas had been launching repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israeli towns and villages. Weren't they inviting a reaction? Indeed. After sending increasing numbers of rockets into Israeli towns, with longer range, heavier loads and more precise targeting, the Hamas leadership cannot claim to be shocked by Israel's reaction; especially not after Lebanon 2006!
So both sides are to blame? Had the two sides agreed to negotiate—something they will inevitably have to do in the wake of this slaughter anyway—all of this could have been avoided. Thus the present conflagration in Gaza is criminal. The most enraging thing is the wanton wastefulness and the cynicism of both leaderships.
Can you summarize for us how the situation got to this point? The Israeli claim that no state would have tolerated this situation is plausible, but is not—as Israelis would have it—a comprehensive explanation as to how the situation developed. Going back to Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in August–September 2005: it was not part of any peace agreement with the Palestinians or part of the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel; it was a unilateral step. Israel did not free Gaza, it only moved from direct control from inside to a more efficient, indirect control from the outside. The evacuation of 8,000 Jewish settlers amidst 1,400,000 Gazans was concomitant to the decision to make Gaza a Palestinian enclosure. As the settlements required protection by large military force, they were removed by Prime Minister Sharon with a lot of international fanfare about Israel's sacrifice for peace. Gaza, however, remained locked and encircled by Israel: with no free access to the West Bank or Egypt and blockaded from the sea and air. Israel also controls all the passages to Gaza. Palestinian-American attorney Gregory Khalil wrote: “Israel still controls every person, every good, literally every drop of water to enter or leave the Gaza Strip. Its troops may not be there… but it still restricts the ability of the Palestinian Authority to exercise control.”
Is it fair to say that Gaza is an occupied territory? Israel claims that under international law Gaza is no longer occupied as Israel has no effective control in Gaza. This, however, remains in dispute: Gaza does not belong to any sovereign state and Israel is in effective control of all its borders. Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, declared that the status of the evacuated areas has not changed. Human Rights Watch also contests Israel's claim about the end of occupation, so does the International Court of Justice and so does the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). The argument that Israel has withdrawn from Gaza and therefore there is no justification for hostilities from Gaza against Israel is, I think, deceitful. The introduction of Qasam missiles, for instance, has to be seen in this context of continued Palestinian armed resistance to Israeli occupation.
Can you tell us more about the weapons Hamas has been employing? The Qasam is a homemade primitive rocket made from multi-use materials, with a range of about 5–6 kilometers. It is a flying artillery rocket lacking any guiding system. The Qasam was first launched into Israel in October 2001, during the second Intifada. Over eight years, thousands of rockets have been fired into Israel from Gaza. Though fatalities over this whole period were only about 18, the weapon has a grave psychological effect—it sows fear, disrupts normal routine, causes material damage, and it cannot be stopped. However, during 2007–2008, with new arms from Hezbollah (funded by Iran) the numbers of missiles—as well as their range and precision—increased. These new imported Katyusha and Grad missiles have ranges of more than 40 kilometers, which brings close to one million Israelis within the potential range of fire. The new situation resulted in increased retaliations by Israel. Then, in June 2008 Hamas declared a ceasefire (tahadiya); it was not directly negotiated with Israel but brokered through Arab mediators. Though the number of rockets fired was reduced, they were not entirely stopped, nor did Israel open the passages to Gaza for regular supplies. So in December, the ceasefire came to an end and the rocket fire resumed. That is the background to the recent operation.
Is Gaza completely cut off from the outside? Israel and Egypt have reached an agreement about control of the borders between the Gaza Strip and Sinai and refuse to hand over the passages to Hamas. (The Egyptian regime is wary of Hamas as it is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—the main opposition to the regime.) Israel maintains control by halting the passage of essential supplies and fuel to Gaza in order to punish Hamas. But these stoppages are in fact a form of collective punishment—they affect everyone. The situation has brought the already-poor economy almost to a standstill. Disaster has been averted by funneling supplies through civil society organizations and through the UN. Under these circumstances of want, tunneling from under the border of Gaza to the Egyptian side became an industry and replaced the often-closed passages. No one knows exactly how many tunnels exist, probably hundreds. The tunnels have become a major route of supplies for civilians as well as for the militias. People—civilians and military experts—also move through the tunnels, as do heavier weapons and high explosives.
Hamas was democratically elected, right? Hamas (“the Islamic Resistance Movement”) won the plurality in democratic elections for the Palestinian Authority's parliament and government in 2006. After the elections, the United States and the European Union refused to accept the results and concurred with Israel in categorizing Hamas a terrorist organization and boycotting it. So, there is a rift over the legitimacy of Hamas government (and the Abbas presidency), which has deteriorated into a bitter internal war where many unarmed civilians have been cruelly killed. After they were elected, Hamas was willing to negotiate a long duration ceasefire with Israel. However, unlike Fatah, which supports a two-state solution, Hamas does not recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state and is committed instead to establishing a Muslim state over the whole of Palestine where Jews would be tolerated. To Israelis, of course, this position is a non-starter.
Does Hamas compete with Fatah? In fact, some of the intensification of Qasam rocketfire from Gaza into Israel results from ongoing competition between Hamas and Fatah there. Pro-Western Arab regimes, while critical of Hamas, have tried to breach this rift among Palestinians, but to no avail. Meanwhile, the in-fighting has also enabled “radical regimes” in the Arab world further entry into the conflict.
Have Israel's tactics in Gaza tarnished its image in the world? Who can remain unmoved by the stream of dead and wounded children in Al-Shifa hospital, or at the scenes of siege and bombardment of cities and refugee camps? Still, emotion and anger must not replace analysis. Tactically, there is nothing happening in Gaza that has not already occurred in the Falkland Islands, Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, or even now in West Pakistan. Pakistani civilians are killed in almost every American raid across the border into West Pakistan. This is not said in order to exonerate Israel, but to make a difficult but necessary point—we live in an era where the Geneva Conventions and rules of war are no longer practiced.
We are interested in the perspective that you as a social scientist bring to the study of global conflict. What can we learn about modern warfare from looking at the Gaza conflict and comparable situations you mentioned? All of these conflicts point to a great disparity between our conceptions of how war ought to be fought and the way present wars are actually fought. Present-day, large-scale armed conflicts are mostly not “wars” as defined in international law; they are not between established states, nor are they conducted between armies. They do not end with white flag surrender and in peace agreements—they do not clearly end. They are disproportionate by intention, in order to shock and awe. Civilian infrastructure and civilians are the main targets and comprise the vast majority of the casualties. Combatants are not necessarily state soldiers; they span a wide range of men, women or even children (soldiers)—from social and religious movements to mercenaries, international volunteers and private military companies. Fighters use civilian locations to avoid detection and use civilians as human shields.
Tell us more about the contrast between high- and low-tech fighting, which clearly features in the Gaza situation. Present-day wars are asymmetrical in the sense that one side employs overwhelmingly hi-capital hi-tech to achieve supremacy and spare (its) lives at the expense of vast, indiscriminate destruction and disruption of life and wanton killings of non-engaged people. In turn, these methods of overkill and destruction become by themselves a cause of radicalization and recruitment for the low-tech fighters. As the fighters are not legal combatants, they are not treated according to the terms of the Geneva Convention. Captives are detained without trial, mistreated, tortured or murdered. We have yet to come to realize that present day war has returned to barbarism, and we have to think of long-term strategies to reverse this horrendous tendency. Indeed, returning to the case of the Gaza crisis, its immediate cause—the asymmetry of power between Israel and Hamas—was well known in advance. But while Israel is surely to blame in all these respects, it is not the only culprit. It follows the major powers: the USA and NATO. Nor can so called “freedom fighters” be exonerated when, in the name of a just cause, they break all humanitarian rules. No end justifies all the means!
Rashid Khalidi contributed an op-ed to the New York Times in which he contended that everything we've been led to believe about Gaza is wrong. Would you agree that the West is largely ignorant of what goes on? To say, as Professor Khalidi does, that everything we have been led to believe about Gaza is wrong, is very U.S.-centric; it is only valid for the United States of America. There is a huge gap between what America's domestic media covers and what people in the West elsewhere see, hear and read. The U.S. government is an accomplice to Israel in this campaign. The EU does not have a unified, independent stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the German government is morally bound to Israel, and the UK is towing the U.S. line in the Middle East. All Western governments know precisely what the situation is in Gaza. Public opinion in the rest of the West—indeed, in the rest of the world—has hardly ever been more furious with Israel's brutality. Most of the world watches other TV stations than those aired in the U.S.; even CNN world service developed a more critical line against Israel during this conflagration. This will affect Israel's standing in the world and any peace process for some years to come. For alternatives to Khalidi, may I refer you to two other U.S. views on the question of the readiness of the Middle East for a new peace initiative: Hussain Agha and Robert Malley's “How Not to Make Peace in the Middle East,” in the New York Review of Books (15 January 2009); and Martin Indyk's essay, with Richard Haas, “Beyond Iraq: A New U.S. Strategy for the Middle East,” for Foreign Affairs (January/February 2009).
Why don't more Israelis speak out against the situation? Are they in denial? This power asymmetry is taken for granted by the majority of Israeli Jews. Even as the Israeli occupation dominates, controls and disrupts every aspect of Palestinian life, most Israelis would regard armed resistance to these actions as terrorism. The peace talks have stalled, Jewish settlement has intensified, yet the occupation is not questioned. People refuse to see the cause-and-effect relation between occupation and resistance. Rather, that resistance is taken as a sign of the innate wickedness of the Palestinian people. Israelis demand that their government do everything to enable a peace-like existence for their nation. They expect the government to find an effective technical-military answer to anything the Palestinians do, without considering politically the occupation itself. Moreover, the majority of Israelis regard the occupation as justified from a national-religious viewpoint.
It sounds like an intractable situation. Israelis want to live as if there is no conflict, but with the Palestinians suffering so much, that is not possible. With their missiles, Palestinians are making Israelis and the world aware of their existence and suffering. The logic of their armed struggle is not to win militarily—they cannot—but to keep the world aware of their dire condition. Otherwise, the world will forget them like it forgets Africa. They cannot win, but Israel cannot win either. It is immoral for Israel to create a deterrence for itself by exacting the lives of thousands of innocent children and civilians. Even if one regards the cynical politics of Hamas as equal to the politics of Israel, the fact that Hamas behavior is despicable does not justify Israelis becoming war criminals, or to have almost starved 1.5 million people for 18 months.
Is there a way forward? There is an alternative—to talk! One talks to enemies! Hamas was elected democratically—whether Israelis like it or not. It reflected the radicalization among Palestinians after Israel quelled brutally the second Intifada. So, the more they are beaten, the greater their despair and the more radical they become. What will happen after this campaign? What horrible new generation will grow out of the debris of Gaza? One of the unintended consequences of this campaign will almost certainly be the further decline of Fatah and the increased isolation of Israel. The Israelis overestimate military solutions and also overestimate the goodwill of the world towards them. The cumulative erosion of Israel’s good standing among nations is slow but very tangible these days. There is no military solution; there is no solution at all while the occupation continues. Israel and Hamas must realize this and talk!
Interview conducted, condensed, and edited by Mary-Lea Cox.